Nicola Sturgeon's Legacy
The FM leaves behind a directionless movement, a government in crisis and a poisonous political debate. I wish her more success in whatever she does next.
Was it because of the police investigation? Was it because she was about to be defeated at her special conference? Was it because of the mounting crises that are engulfing her government? Was it that the slide backwards in the independence polls just left her too exhausted to continue?
Only Nicola Sturgeon knows why she decided to wave goodbye to the SNP today. What we do know is that she leaves behind a party and a movement that will have to deal with the many crises she leaves behind without her political talents.
Sturgeon the Performer
When planning the Better Together campaign, I went deep into the archives and studied a decade of SNP communications on independence. What struck me was how unfalteringly consistent the language used by Salmond, Swinney, Salmond and then Sturgeon was. This group of politicians decided on their political argument in the late nineties and then determined to shape Scottish politics around those arguments.
Sturgeon was polished, rigidly sticking to the script in interviews, however ultimately that unwavering focus on prosecuting their own message has meant that the independence cause has been inflexible in response to changing political circumstances. Generals risk fighting the last war and political leaders are reluctant to change the strategy that brought them to power, even when it is clear it isn’t working anymore.
The First Minister claimed in her valediction that she had created a majority for independence. The reality is that she oversaw the campaign that failed to convince Scots to leave the UK in 2014 and polls over the last few days suggested that support for remaining in the UK is as strong as it was when she was defeated. SNP leaders are judged, and judge themselves, on one thing only: have they progressed the cause of nationalism? Sturgeon has not.
The last SNP leader to comprehensively renew the SNP’s cause and the independence cause was Salmond Mk1 twenty years ago. In her time Sturgeon has failed to renew the case for leaving the UK. New powers in Holyrood, Brexit, the rise of Starmer’s Labour, and economic realities have transformed the political landscape. Sturgeon has done little to advance her argument.
While she was a referendum loser, she was undoubtedly an election winner. Building on the nationalist framing of Scottish politics to win in Holyrood, Sturgeon was also able to exploit a series of too-close-to-call general elections to inject herself into UK debates where the SNP had been, in the past, seen as irrelevant. Her successor will likely lack the status and the political opportunity to do so.
Successive landslide victories are remarkable political achievements, built not just by Sturgeon but by an organisational team led by her husband. However, being good at the game of politics is not the same as being a good political leader. “Bullsh*t'll grease a lot of doors”, as Jack Stanton says in Primary Colours. “The real test is what you do when you walk through ' em.” So, what did Nicola Sturgeon deliver with all that power?
Sturgeon the Policy Maker
Here is where this edition starts to become less generous to the First Minister and her legacy. In almost every area of policy, Nicola Sturgeon has failed her own tests, left behind services in crisis, and overseen national decline.
Promising to prioritise the educational attainment of disadvantaged kids above all else she instead marked down the exams of kids in poverty, cut the funding for the poorest kids, and then gave up on that promise altogether. Despite our higher public spending in Scotland, schools were deprioritised with high school spending per pupil now the lowest in the UK. In our primary schools, she promised class sizes under 18 for the first three years but delivered that for one in seven kids. Elected to write off student debt she instead trebled it. There are tens of thousands fewer students in colleges. Faced with evidence that Scottish education was in decline compared to other nations, she simply withdrew from international surveys.
She was the health minister who gave up running the NHS to run a referendum campaign instead. Hundreds of GP positions are unfilled; thousands of nursing vacancies are unfilled; local surgeries are only accepting emergency appointments; and accident and emergency departments have the worst-ever waiting times. Even her target for cancer treatment within 62 days has been missed for a decade. She has overseen the worst drug deaths in the developed world and no sign that she has learned the lessons of the previous cuts to drug treatment. Her National Care Service policy is the final failure she will pass on to her successor.
A decade after she posed with a smart ticket with her face on it, there is no sign of the smart ticket promised. After she increased the price of tickets by half, a fifth fewer Scots are travelling by bus. She cut hundreds of services from train timetables. A promise to replace ferries made a decade ago was never delivered, leaving island communities without reliable services. Half a billion pounds later, the ferries she famously launched with painted-on windows and fake funnels still lay rusting in Port Glasgow while she hands long-delayed orders for ferries to shipyards in Turkey.
All this failure and no self-reflection. The purpose of policy for Nicola Sturgeon has been to deliver a press release, not to deliver for the people of Scotland. She was only ever a politician living in the moment - from selfie to selfie - and as such leaves behind no clear positive policy legacy for historians to discuss.
Sturgeon the Politician
Sturgeon’s real and, unfortunately, lasting legacy comes not from her performance or policy achievements but from her style of politics. Great politicians look to create a new consensus, small politicians see only enemies. Sturgeon has revelled in divisions far too much to ever be considered great.
Under her leadership, Scotland has become more polarised; our debate has become tribal and ugly; our policy deliberations divorced from evidence. She never truly challenged the politics of Salmond where the motivations, ideas, and even the very Scottishness of opponents are to be denied.
In the wake of her referendum defeat, Sturgeon should have reached out to the three-quarters of Scots who want to make a success of devolution. She should have made it clear that we are all equally Scottish and worthy of respect. Instead, she chose to strive for a narrow victory rather than a wide accord. Even the most optimistic of nationalists would have to admit that, after Sturgeon’s leadership, the polls show the best result their movement can now hope for is a deeply divided country. Is that really worth all that anger and antagonism?
In her final act as a leader, Nicola Sturgeon has marched her party up the hill of the de facto referendum strategy and then abandoned them there. She should have told them the reason the process of independence had not moved forward is that public opinion has not moved forward. She should have told them that the politics of division will only ever deliver a divided country. Under her leadership, her members’ worst instincts have gone unchallenged. The contest that follows will simply indulge those members even more, marching them further away from a winning strategy.
Notwithstanding all the above, I wish Nicola Sturgeon well. Whether you are a success or a failure as a political leader, it is hard, unforgiving work - even more so for a woman facing constant misogynistic attacks.
Aside from more altruistic motivations, most politicians have a need inside them that leads them to seek the adulation of the public stage. I’ve always worried that the FM has never seemed as happy as she should be given her electoral success.
Leaving now, she has been denied the one thing that would have made her happiest: seeing her image atop a plinth in some public space renamed Independence Square. As happy as I am about that, I hope she finds fulfilment in whatever she does next. I hope she learns the lesson of her predecessor, that she moves on from Scottish politics, and devotes herself to some international cause that can translate her talents into real change.
As for what comes next, the leadership is John Swinney’s if he wants it. He is one of the only Ministers trusted by Sturgeon enough to actually have real experience in governing. Angus Robertson too will be well placed despite an abysmal record in his short time as a minister and questions of judgement which will resurface. Although both these men offer only continuity when the party needs deeper change.
Humza Yousaf’s once rising star is all but extinguished by his calamitous mismanagement of the NHS. Kate Forbes has long been spoken of as Sturgeon’s preferred successor but will find it hard to escape the same sort of questions that followed Tim Farron around as Lib Dem leader. The parliamentary party may opt for current Deputy Keith Brown, judging that boring is preferable to risky.
The challenges Sturgeon’s successor will face are formidable: the need for wholesale renewal of the SNP’s message, the need to fundamentally rethink the independence case, and the need to transform a failing government.
I don’t envy whoever gets the job.
This made me laugh:
Great article. It strikes me that she became increasingly convinced that “the SNP were Scotland” and possibly even that “she was Scotland” forgetting that her job as FM was to deliver for all Scots. She has managed to further divide the people of our country and it’s a massive job to tackle that divide but that is essential if we are to move forward.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Now that Sturgeon has been knocked off her perch, it is time to start thinking how the undemocratic parliament at Holyrood can be reformed so that no-one else can get the stranglehold on power that she has had (supported by Greens who couldn't win a single constituency).
This book shows how Sturgeon's rise was made possible only by the flawed constitution of the Holyrood. With nearly half the MSPs appointed by party bureaucrats, her lock on office was not hard to achieve. Labour had the same till 2007, when the effects of the Iraq war hit them and their supporters fled to the SNP. Now that has imploded, perhaps we can have a grown-up debate about how to reform the parliament in order to establish an actual DEMOCRACY.
Nobody else must be able to establish security in power to the extent Sturgeon has done. We must return to the separation of powers principle in which the legislature controls the executive. In Scotland we have had that the other way round. That must never be allowed to happen again.
There is a lot about the connection between Sturgeon's rise and the undemocratic nature of Holyrood, and its origins in what is called “the Dewar Constitution”, in this book: